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Critique on Structuralism

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Critique on the Structuralists: Durkheim, de Saussure, and Levi-Strauss
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  Structural Anthropology theory of religion emerged out of the historical study of religion. These theorists proposed a different method of the study of religion, including linguistics, ethnography/ethnology, mythology, and symbolism. Proponents of these methods were Saussure, Durkheim, and Levi-Strauss. The study of empirical cultures can bring new light and meanings to the rituals and myths of cultures. This is precisely what the structural anthropologists sought to unearth. Saussure raises the issue about language and speech. He says that language is the psychological aspect, whereas speech is the physiological aspect. At the end of his discourse, he stresses the need to explore the study of signs  — semiology. He explains that language is not natural to humans, but rather is formed through a social construct. Speech on the other hand, demonstrates the need of humans to communicate with each other, whether through oral sounds or through the use of signs and gestures (Saussure, pg 9). The Medieval Sephardic rabbinic authorities such as David Kim ḥ i, Abraham Ibn Ezra, and Maimonides gave primary importance to the definition of language in the study of the Torah. Within their commentaries, one will find explanations of cultural peculiarities of the use of language and demonstrations of the evolution of words in different biblical contexts. One example of such is the use of anthropomorphisms. Hence, one can see how the Sephardic luminaries were ahead of their time in a sense. Emile Durkheim establishes a principle for “primitive” and “simple” religion. He says that a religion is “primitive” when it does not take after an y other before it and when it is not surpassed by any other in simplicity. He says that the study of primitive religion must be done from the premise that they hold reality and express it. Moreover, he explains that the rites and symbols of these religions express a human need or some aspect life; one cannot assume that they are based on error. Hence, there are no false religions. They all have their truths and  answer the conditions of human existence in different ways (Durkheim, pg 217). This will later be explained and understood through the diffusion method of anthropology. His thesis is that one must study the root of religious ideas, practices, or legal principles and trace their evolutions through history. He uses Descartes’ principle of evolution to p lace naturism, animism, and totemism   at the  “ beginning ”   of religion. He says that one must find the commonality in religious traditions, separating the secondary from the principle. The study of  “primitive” civilizations allows the scholar to study human i nstitutions. Durkheim stresses the need to not judge simple religions through the eyes of the more-developed ones. Through this method of study, one can undertake the incognita of the srcin of religion, not to be confused with the “beginning of religion”   (Durkheim, 223). This method is the study of religion was vital for Maimonides. In his Guide For the Perplexed, he explains that all of the precepts which are known as ḥ  uqim   (laws that transcend human logic) can really be explained through the study of religious anthropology of the Near Eastern civilizations of the time when the Torah was revealed. Maimonides asserts that all of the Torah is indeed a contradiction to the Near-Eastern practices, and that its goal is to create a separation of the Hebrew civilization from the rest (Maimonides, book 4). Hence, this is what it means to be Am qadosh   (A holy nation). Ultimately, for Durkheim, the Australian absrcines are the best subjects for the study of primitive religion. Durkheim agrees with J.Z. Smith that one must not study religion through preconceived notions, i.e. defining “religion” as Christianity. Durkheim defines religious phenomena as a dichotomy of beliefs and rites. He also says that all religious traditions view the world in terms of profane and sacred. This is indeed the goal of the Torah  — to define what is profane and sacred, and to create a distinction between the two. Furthermore, Durkheim explains how the need to live a sacred life led to extreme asceticism and monasticism. These lifestyles are  precisely what Max Weber believed to have contributed to the “spirit of capitalism” as practiced by the adherents of European Pietism. On the contrary, this is the problem that Marx has with religion  — social parasitism. Overall, Durkheim asserts that religion must be studied in its own right, without the noise of Christianity. Next, Levi-Strauss explains that the anthropologist must be careful in drawing conclusions of different cultures that have similar customs and practices. He says that the linkage can only be done through a precise history or intermediary. Moreover, he explains that there two methods, namely, evolutionism and diffusionism. The former assumes that one culture is more primitive than the other and the latter uses a comparative method into to reconstruct individuals with fragments borrowed from different categories. This would imply that both Max Weber and Karl Marx used the evolution theory of historical analysis. An example of diffusionism is evident in the Midrash Rabbah   when the Rabbis state that the Torah was revealed at Sinai and each nation of the world heard some form of it and interpreted what it understood, and used it as the basis of the respective civilization. Levi-Strauss suggests that when performing the anthropological comparison, that the ethnologist limit it to a small region. He also cites Boas in saying that “one must study how things came to be.” As a result, the reconstruction of history opposes the traditional historian’s conclusion s. This is the idea when he says, “ The criticism of the evolutionist and diffusionist interpretations has shown us that when the anthropologist thinks that he is doing historical research, he is doing the opposite; it is when he thinks that he is not doing historical research that he operates like a good historian, who would be limited by the same lack of do cuments” (Levi -Strauss, pg 16). Levi- Strauss’ thesis on the analysis of religion is expressed in the following statement: “ The study of the mentally sick individual has shown us that all persons are more or less oriented toward contradictory systems and suffer from the resulting conflict . In  addition, he asserts that the cure and sickness is emotional and psychological. He also says that if one were to explain sickness in terms of germs, bacteria, and virus, it would cause no effect to the ill. In essence, he equated the shaman with the psychoanalyst. This precisely the problem that Freud has with religion  — the rules and norms of a given society are established based on the sense of guilt and when certain individuals within that civilization evolve, their freedom is curtailed due to the “primitive” understanding of their contemporaries.  According to Levi-Strauss, healing through a shaman and through a psychoanalyst are similar in that they use symbols, i.e. language, where the former speaks for the patient. In this aspect both Levi-Strauss and Saussure agree; the understanding of the symbols and language are of prime importance in analyzing myths.  Another form of language is myth. Levi-Strauss is surprised that few people dedicated their lives to the study of mythology. He agrees that a myth transcends the translation. However, the study of myths must include all of their constituents, lest the scholar misunderstands them. A method that is used to understand myths is placing the elements of the myth in columns and analyzing their relationships to one another. This is a visual tool that allows the anthropologist to understand the underlying meaning of the myth. Levi-Strauss uses this method on the Oedipus myth and concludes that it conveys the idea that procreation requires two people  — male and female. In the same fashion, the meaning of Rabbinic Midrash   and  Aggadah   can be deciphered through the diction and underlying structure as Levi-Strauss proposes. Levi-Strauss agrees generally that a myth and ritual go hand-to-hand, where the myth is conceptual and the ritual is put into action. However, he also states that they do not always have a one-to-one relationship. Also, he stresses that it is important to compare the myths of surrounding societies. This is what Eliade does in his work The Myth of the Eternal Return. By comparing various myths and finding similarities, he was able to develop the
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